Film Review – Fear Street Part 1: 1994
Fear Street Part 1: 1994
Based on the R.L. Stine books, Fear Street (2021) is an ambitious horror trilogy telling an interweaving story through three different time periods. Fear Street Part 1: 1994 combines such influences as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996), The Shining (1980), and its Netflix counterpart, Stranger Things. That last comparison is apt since several performers here also have major parts on that show. But while 1994 wears its nostalgia on its sleeve, it doesn’t simply rely on the familiar to pull us in. It creates its own identity, with its own developed mythology and unique characters. This was fun, tense, and has a little bit of a nasty streak. In other words: I dug it.
Directed by Leigh Janiak with a screenplay credit by Phil Graziadei (both of which helm all three parts), the story introduces us to a small town with the unlucky name of Shadyside. Shadyside has a tragic reputation – with a history plagued with murderers. This is in contrast to its rival town Sunnyvale which, as the name would suggest, appears to be a slice of idyllic Americana. Peace never seems to last long in Shadyside. As our story starts, we learn that a group of costumed killers have popped up to hunt unsuspecting victims.
Janiak sets the timeframe immediately, placing needle drops that don’t so much hit the nail on the head as it does with a sledgehammer. “Closer” (Nine Inch Nails), “Only Happens When it Rains” (Garbage), “Insane in the Brain” (Cypress Hill) and “Creep” (Radiohead) are just some of the musical choices that are so obvious to the time that it comes close to parody. Luckily, Janiak’s direction settles in after the early scenes, focusing on the story instead of the period details.
Deena (Kiana Madeira) is a Shadyside teen who’s stuck in a rut. Her former partner Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch) has moved to Sunnyvale. Her closest friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Ryan (David W. Thompson) want so desperately to move that they are willing to sell prescription medication to do it. Deena’s younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) spends so much time in the basement researching conspiracy theories that he barely notices when she calls his name. To make things even more complicated, the newly arrived killers have placed their attention on Deena and her friends. And so, with no parents around, the small band of misfits must work together to fight off their assailants and figure out what in the heck is happening.
If this were a typical horror film, many of these characters would fall prey to the usual tropes of the slasher genre. The writing and direction are much smarter than that. They allow the characters to be fully formed teens, filled with anxiety, doubt, and raging hormones. But the film never looks down on them. These are smart, resourceful people, discovering who they are while avoiding getting stabbed. Deena and Samantha aren’t punished for their sexuality, nor are Kate and Ryan judged for doing what they can to better their lives, or Josh for taking an interest in a subject others may find lurid. These characters don’t simply run and hide, they try to diagnose the problem and fix it in whatever way they can.
Stylistically, 1994 incorporates a hyper real, neon-tinged aesthetic. The opening set piece – taking place in the local mall – is flooded with blue light. This is mirrored later inside of a grocery store, where Caleb Heymann’s cinematography makes great use of the location. The shot and angle choices make the area feel more expansive for the characters to move around in. The production doesn’t skimp out on the bloodshed either, ramping up the gore in the latter stages. One kill scene (you’ll know which one I’m talking about) is effective in how over the top and gruesome it is. While the editing is a bit hectic and random in spots, the action and horror were strong enough to induce ample thrills.
While this is the first of a three part whole, the world building gives us a glimpse into Shadyside’s past. As newspaper clippings show, the town has produced killers for hundreds of years. Somehow, they are all linked. Is the town so depressing that it brings out the worst in people or is there something else more sinister happening? Expositional dialogue foreshadows what’s to come. Certain hints and side characters are dropped that are bound to play bigger roles later on. Janiak juggles these elements well, giving just a taste for us to stay interested without giving them too much attention.
It was a smart move for Fear Street to start in 1994 and work backwards in time. We see the results first and gradually discover the origins the further back we go. Part 1 is a solid opening act, stumbling out of the gates but finishing strong. While the heavy reliance on nostalgia had me wary at first, the strength of the story and character work won me over. It hooked me in, and I look forward to what the next chapter brings.